Guapa by Saleem Haddad

guapaThe author of the novel recently gave a talk which some members were able to attend. This provided a valuable insight into some of the questions asked about the book during our discussion.

The name of the novel was questioned, specifically the use of the titular word in the feminine form; was it in reference to the supposed effeminacy of homosexuality? However the name was apparently imposed by the publisher, so the author’s intent is very much negligible in this instance.

The book was considered a page turner. That the author captured the naivety and directness of the Middle East was appreciated. Reference was swiftly made to one of the more humorous lines in the book, shouted out as an insult by a taxi driver; “may sixty dicks ride your mother’s pussy”. The line” the burka wasn’t a problem until the Americans got involved” was also highlighted.

The location of the novel was of interest, and some felt it could have been set in Jordan or Syria. One member questioned whether the location was non-descript in order to make it more accessible, or less alien, to an international reader, whilst another added that the ambiguity of its setting made it a more difficult read. One member suggested it was intentionally kept ambiguous for fear of reprisals, though another, who attended the talk with the author confirmed the ambiguity was in order to protect the work the author undertakes in the location. Despite this noble intent, one member felt the lack of physical setting was a real loss to the novel.

The political upheaval of the book was felt to keep coming in and out of focus, despite the novel only covering a 24 hour period. Although there was brevity in the period the main narrative covered, most of the protagonist’s life was covered by protagonist’s remembrances.

Some felt the main problem of the book was its naivety; it was felt the difficulties between the oppressive regime and the resistance wasn’t explored sufficiently and we just get the characters ‘fighting their oppressors in a gay bar’.

It was felt that Rasa focussed on trying to ‘fit’ in each environment we find him in, but that he regularly fails to. Always the ‘outsider’, he is accused of being white by an African American. The character painted himself as a victim, yet had the freedom to leave the politically volatile, repressed, homophobic environment we find him in; he even travelled to the US, perhaps only in a bid to explore a perceived sexual liberation, but chooses to return home, despite its negative impact. However, it was noted that Rasa doesn’t live a life secluded in the cosier environs of the gay bar and company of his liberal friends, but regularly travels to the less affluent parts of the city, for the purposes of both work and leisure.

One member was annoyed by the lack of Rasa’s political and sexual awareness during his time in the US. Another membered countered by stating most gay men, or indeed human beings, are not particularly politically aware.

Although Rasa’s oppressive, traditional Grandmother was recognised as of strong character, a member felt she was hideous and would have liked to have got rid of her himself. However, the lead character was considered weak or lacking depth by some, with a member questioning who ‘he’ was. Others felt he didn’t carry the story and that he was ‘wet’ The questionable depth of the characters extended to some of the other main characters, such as Nora, the owner of the bar Rasa and his liberal cohorts frequent.

It was felt that the book would have benefitted from being written from the perspective of Rasa’s friend Maj; an overtly camp, resident drag queen from the titular bar. Rasa’s reminiscences illustrate the character as never being far from trouble and how Rasa has always been the one to get him out of whichever scrape Maj gets himself into. Whilst Rasa was somewhat passive in his political and sexual identity, Maj was always overtly himself and being actively political in being so. Despite the consequences of Maj being himself, without restraint, regularly results in danger, violence and, pertinently to the main story, police intervention, Maj remains unwilling to restrain the presentation of his identity. He is therefore recognised as a stronger, more dynamic character than the lead.
Quotations:

“Before I met Taymour I had no reason to tell anyone anything. And then, when I had him I wanted to share my joy with the world.”

“Watching him walk to his car, I felt light as air, as if the weight that had been bearing down on me for years was gone, and I was now like everyone else.” And finally this passage: “When I returned to the bedroom I noticed his red boxer shorts on the floor by my bed. Had he forgotten them, or did he leave them there for me? I looked for my own underwear but could not find it. Surely he must have noticed, as he pulled on his gym shorts, that he was wearing not his underwear but mine. Maybe it was a message, a promise that he would be back.”
“Don’t go to the wedding.”

“I have to go. It’s eib not to go.”

“The tyranny of eib.” Maj sighs. = بنك الاستثمار الأوروبي = shame on you

“May sixty dicks dance on your mother’s pussy,” the driver barks, leaning into his horn..

“Khawal refers to effeminate men. A long time iTezlo the word referred to male belly dancers. But it’s not used for that anymore.”

“Is it used for gay?” I asked.

“What …what did you say?” he stammered.

“Gay.”
“Don’t use that word here,” he said, eyes narrowing. He licked his lips, stood up from behind his desk, and ushered me to the door.

It was funny that both English and Arabic have so many words that explored every dimension of what I was feeling, and yet not one word that could encapsulate it all.

In my final year of high school, I discovered POLSKA­SAT. It was Omar who, in excitable whispers over the phone one day, first told me about the obscure Polish channel that you could get on the satellite if you knew the exact frequency. That Saturday night, after Teta yawned and announced she was going to bed, I waited until her snores traveled across the quiet house and then scrolled through the channels until I arrived at POLSKASAT.
To top off her wages, on Fridays Teta wore her hijab and black abaya and went to the mosque down the road to collect donations, and on Sundays she wore a crucifix and drove to the near­est town. She hid among the churchgoers, stood up and sat down when they did. She knew when to say “Kyrie Eleison,” and she even took communion. Then, as the charity box was handed out, she reached in and took her weekly stipend.

I was angry about my education, with its ancient and rigid teaching methods peppered with false truths and blatant lies, where the only goal was to make us forget how to criticize and ask challenging ques­tions.

The next evening I listened to the American president’s solemn declaration of war. I watched the footage of bombs dropping on a city that looked like my own, and realized that from now until the day I died that city would not be what it had been. It had become shorthand to describe an event. Thecountry that once existed was no more. It had changed the moment the first bomb fell through the dark sky. Before the war had even claimed its first human life, the first victim was the city itself. A concept, a history, a culture.

the hijab meant nothing until America decided it did.

Maj laughs. “By the very nature of being a religious cleric they must be delusional. Besides, Islam or not, there is a long acceptance of homosexuality by Arab society that stretches back to the pre-Islamic period. It was those prud­ish Victorians who spoiled the party.”

“And you’re wrong, Rasa,” Nora says. “When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was not because of homosexuality, it was about lustful acts in general, and criminality, and general debauchery, really…”

“If I get married to a woman, which I don’t suppose will happen if I can get away with it, but if I do, then I will have children.”

He put his arm around me and I leaned back.

“What about if you were with a man, would you adopt?” I said, watching him hover above me.

“Absolutely not.” He pulled me back up in one clean swoop. “It’s unnatural.”

“It’s unnatural for two men who love each other to adopt a child? Why?”

“I don’t know, it just is,” he said. “It’s against soci­ety.” We tripped on each other’s legs. “It’s one-two­three-turn, right?”

I nodded. “What is society though? I mean what are the rules of society?”

“It’s just against society,” he repeated, and gave me a kiss.

And so the next day I told Maj that I felt that two men should not be allowed to adopt children. I tried the argu­ment on for size and heard myself say it, just to see what it was like. To my surprise Maj agreed with me, saying that adopting children was a heteronormative performance that sought to castrate queerness.

“Maybe we should go protest.”

“Yes, yes. Great idea. Let’s go protest. Against who?” “Against everyone. Against everything.”

“Sounds good,” Maj says. “But first, maybe a drink or two at Guapa.”

guapa-2 The Long Way

The memory returns to me so vividly I feel I am back there, at 14, in the backseat of that taxi. At the time my father had been dead for 18 months, my mother had vanished the year before that, I was magically sprouting hair in places I was not expecting, and I was still sharing a bed with Teta.

I was returning from a history lesson at Maj’s house. We were both struggling with the material. Our school followed the British curriculum, which meant we had to study the history of Europe and the World Wars: the Kaiser, the Treaty of Versailles, then Churchill and Stalin. It all seemed like another universe to us, so Teta and Maj’s mother agreed to share the costs of a private tutor.

I hailed a taxi outside Maj’s house and got into the backseat, as Teta directed me to do when riding in taxis alone. The man behind the wheel was young, though I couldn’t make out his age: perhaps 18, maybe 20. He was wearing a tight red T-shirt that gripped his body. He drove without speaking. A familiar pressure inside me began to build. It was a terrible choking sensation that had been growing in the months since I lost my parents. I had no control over my destiny, and everything around me could suddenly die or run away.

I rolled down the window and pressed the back of my head against the leather seat. The crisp November air felt cold against my face, releasing the pressure somewhat. Through the streetlights, which lit up the inside of the car in recurring waves, I saw that the driver’s forearms were potholed with scars. I admired the way his T-shirt stretched tightly against his chest. His arms broke out in large goose bumps.

“Shut the window, it’s cold,” he said. I rolled up the window, feeling the choking sensation close in on me once more. I watched the muscles in the driver’s arms tighten as he shifted gears. The large veins running under his skin awoke a sensation inside me I had never felt before. I wanted to connect with him in some way, to be closer to him somehow.

“Is this your taxi?” I asked.

“My brother’s,” he said. His jaw clicked as he chewed a piece of gum. He sighed and put one arm behind the passenger seat while steering with the other. I looked at the hand resting behind the seat. His fingers were decorated with gold and silver rings. Dark black dirt was wedged underneath his fingernails. I glanced down at my own fingernails, which Doris had clipped earlier that day.

I tried to imagine what this man’s life was like, outside of this taxi. His rough accent meant he probably lived in al-Sharqiyeh, maybe in a tiny room that smelled of fried onions and cigarettes, because that’s what I imagined al-Sharqiyeh would smell like. How much did we have in common, he and I? If I knew then what I know now, I would have put our differences down to a complex algorithm of class and culture. But back then I did not know about any of that, so I stuck to what we had in common: the car we were both sitting in.

“Do you drive this taxi often?” I asked.

“One or two nights a week,” he replied, making a turn into the side street that took us off the highway and toward my new neighborhood downtown.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy what?” His eyes flicked up to look at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were a cool gray, almost silver. “Driving the taxi,” I said, holding his gaze as I played with the dog-eared corners of the history books on my lap.

“It’s just a job,” he said, turning back to the road. “Well what do you like doing when you’re not driving the taxi? Do you watch television?” Teta fed me on a diet of dubbed Mexican telenovelas, American television shows, and an endless stream of news. Perhaps his television set also showed those channels.

“I don’t have spare time. When I’m not driving, I work on a construction site.”

The next turn would take us to my street. I felt a sudden panic. I wanted to spend more time with this man. We were moving closer to something new and exciting. I wanted to be his friend. And not just any friend, not like Maj or Basma, but a friend who would always be around, someone I could hug and be close to. My insides were buzzing. I wanted him to keep on driving, to take me out of this sad town, far away from that empty apartment with Doris and Teta.

“Is that why you have big muscles?” I scrambled to find a way to delay our separation. He glanced at me, studied my face for a while, clicked his chewing gum. Then his lips turned to form a crooked smile.

“Come up here and sit next to me,” he said.

I hesitated. It would be eib to say no, although it also felt eib to say yes. Stuck between two eibs, I left the books in the back and climbed into the passenger seat. We drove past Teta’s apartment. He took a right into a dark street and parked the car between two large trees. He unzipped his jeans and pulled out his thing. It stood between us, hard, like an intruder to an intimate conversation. Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed it, and he let out a slight moan. I studied the thing in my hand, feeling it grow in my palm.

“Yalla,” he whispered as his eyes scanned the area. “Huh?”

“Put your mouth on it,” he said impatiently.

I swallowed and bent down. He smelled sour and hot. I put his thing in my mouth and looked up for further instructions.

“Wet your mouth, wet your mouth,” he hissed. “Your tongue is like sandpaper.”

I swallowed a few more times until my mouth was wet, and this time the process went more smoothly. He seemed happy with this and sighed. He pressed down on my neck but he remained alert, his head darting back and forth as if following a game of tennis. I was down for a few minutes when my excitement began to disappear, replaced with a strong sense of guilt that I was making a terrible mistake.

I struggled, concentrating on breathing through my nose and not gagging each time he pushed my head down. I wasn’t sure how long this would last. He groaned. My mouth filled with salty slime. The warm hand at the back of my neck disappeared.

“Get out now before someone sees,” he said, zipping his trousers up. I wiped my mouth, took my books from the backseat, and got out of the car. The man started up the engine, reversed out onto the road, and sped off.

I looked around. There was no one. The awkward feeling slowly disappeared, and the memory of what happened seemed sweeter. I stored bits of it for later: the warm hand on the back of my neck, the sour smell, the shape of his thing in my mouth. I relived those memories as I walked home. Teta looked up when I came through the door. I was terrified to face her. She always seemed to know everything. This was something she should never know. She was sitting in her nightgown, cracking roasted sunflower seeds between her teeth. On the television the news showed footage of bombs dropping on a busy neighborhood.

“You found a taxi?” she asked, picking at bits of seed lodged between her teeth.

For a moment I thought she might be able to tell just by looking at me, or that she would smell the taxi driver on my clothes and face. I swallowed hard, feeling the salty slime slide down my throat. It felt scratchy, like I was coming down with a cold.

“Yes, but he took the long way,” I said, trying to look as natural as I could. I took a deep breath. This was the first lie I had ever told Teta, and as I said this a part of me split from her forever. The gooey liquid in the back of my throat felt far away from the words coming out of my mouth. I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] chose this arising out of a discussion about Guapa by Saleem Haddad, whose author’s experience as a Muslim in America was […]

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